The temporary foreign worker program is perhaps the most contentious labour issue in the oilsands but a new provincial and federal government agreement is expected to clarify its parameters.
"We'll be able to share information and that'll hopefully help us be alerted to any abuses that could come forward," said Alberta Minister of Employment, Immigration and Industry Iris Evans. "I think you'll see a lot of the concerns that have been emerging addressed," she added, when the agreement is finished in November.
Monte Solberg, federal minister of human resources and social development Canada, said in an announcement the new agreement will include penalties for program abuse, such as refusing future requests for foreign workers. While there must be a "zero tolerance" for abuse and mistreatment, Solberg said "we need to recognize that temporary foreign workers must supplement Canadian labour, not displace it."
With the use of Chinese temporary workers predominant on the oilsands, training and qualifications remain top concerns, said Gil McGowan, Alberta Federation of Labour president.
Training is, he said, "One of the big questions we were asking after the deaths on the tank farm and it's a question we continue to ask: 'Are the workers being brought over from other countries trained up to standards that would be acceptable in Canada?' So far, we haven't been convinced." McGowan is referring to a tank collapse at the Canadian National Resources Ltd. site in April that killed two Chinese temporary workers.
McGowan said neither level of government has adequate screening mechanisms to properly evaluate qualifications.
He said federal bureaucrats have "essentially admitted to me that they only do paper audits on workers coming into the country under the temporary foreign worker program."
That may be acceptable with workers coming from countries with comparable standards to Canada's, but for workers coming from countries like China with lower standards, "Paper audits clearly won't be enough."
He's also concerned about a "loophole" in the practical testing of compulsory certified trades. Workers have up to six months to take the test but can work during that time.
"The paper audits and the loopholes that are being exploited by employment brokers make a mockery of our standards when it comes to training and health and safety," stated McGowan. "We're creating this underclass of workers who are much more vulnerable and much more open to exploitation."
It also discourages employers from investing in domestic training. McGowan asked why companies would invest in a domestic apprentice for four or five years, when they can get, for example, a journeyman right away through the temporary foreign worker program.
"The temporary worker program has been identified as one of the components to get through the human resources challenge," said Brian Maynard, human resources specialist and a vice-president for the Canadian Asociation of Petroleum Producers.
He noted a lot of people accuse the industry of trying to circumvent Alberta's labour movement by using temporary foreign workers.
While that could sometimes be the case, he acknowledged, it's "the most expensive solution we can find."
Costs for this "short-term solution" include such integration issues as moving, transportation, training and regulatory approvals. "It's a real challenge to integrate a temporary foreign worker," he said. Those costly challenges act as an "incentive for companies to hire locally," added Maynard.
MLA Hugh MacDonald, Liberal energy critic, wonders why, with nine other provinces and three territories, employers look overseas.
"Every rock and stone should be overturned looking for people here," he told Today. "I'm not convinced we're making enough of an effort." He added the unemployment rate among First Nations youth aged 15 to 24 is high.
"The last place we should be looking is the temporary foreign worker for exploitation," said MacDonald, adding the program is "designed to drive down Canadian wages and work conditions."
Last year, according to Evan's office, the top three countries suppying temporary foreign workers were the United States with 2,772, Philippines at 2,211 then the United Kingdom at 1,438. China ranks ninth out of the top 12 with 293. The U.S. is generally always the leading country. The year before it was the U.S., U.K. then Australia. The top three positions are babysitters/nannies, parents' helper at nine per cent; general farm workers at six per cent and processional occupations/business management at five per cent. Oilsands workers are not in the top 10. However, a group of "other occupations," which covers the remaining jobs not mentioned could include these workers. But because of the way the federal government collects the data, there's no way to break down this 68.6 per cent. There's also no way of knowing the top three countries supplying foreign workers to oilsands projects.
Fort McMurray Today, Page A1, Fri July 20 2007
Byline: Carol Christian
Alberta's booming economy, huge influx of workers and lack of safety training on some job sites are causing more workplace accidents among young employees, and too often costing them their lives, say labour advocates.
The Association of Workers' Compensation Boards of Canada states young workers are the most accident-prone in the country, with more than 50,700 workers under the age of 24 losing time from work after being injured in 2006.
Young people, who make up 17 per cent of Alberta's workforce, accounted for almost one-quarter of disabled injury claims in 2006, and those under 25 are 33 per cent more likely to be injured on the job than older workers.
The most recent stats show 51 workplace deaths among young workers across the country.
Most recently, on June 7, Rona employee Mitchell Tanner, 16, was killed after a forklift he was riding on flipped over and crushed him at a location near Edmonton.
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said that incident was unfortunately not isolated, as young people are more accident-prone on the job because of their inexperience and a lack of health and safety training provided to them.
"It's not a surprise, but the statistics underline the need for an aggressive commitment to health and safety training for young workers because they are the ones most likely to be injured," he said, adding the lack of training is significant in Alberta as it experiences an "unprecedented" influx of people under the age of 25.
Holly Heffernan, interim executive secretary for the Calgary and District Labour Council agreed the economic boom is partially to blame.
"They are coming on to the workforce and getting no orientation - they just give them a hammer and let them go," she said.
The Meridian Booster, Page A10, Fri July 18 2008
Byline: Katie Schneider
A new study released by the Alberta Federation of Labour says the Trade Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (TILMA) will dumb down trade qualifications. The study claims the agreement opens the door to "watered-down trade qualifications" of Alberta workers to meet lower B.C. standards.
"We see this as a TILMA-triggered race to the bottom in the areas of professional and skilled labour qualifications," said Gil McGowan, federation president. "It's clear this isn't really a deal about trade or investment. It's setting the stage for dumbing down ... getting the job done with lesser qualified employees."
The implications of this should concern everyone, he said. He wondered "do you really want your homes to be built by someone with lower qualifications?"
The federation is sending copies of the study to all Alberta MLAs and asking the province to rescind the legislation.
McGowan pointed out there is an intent in TILMA to harmonize requirements for 50 Alberta occupations, mostly in the construction industry, currently exempt from TILMA because of higher standards. He's skeptical of the outcome, saying it will be a harmonizing down rather than up to the higher Alberta standards.
"That's bad news for both workers and the public," he added. "We should always be pushing for the highest possible occupation requirements, no matter which province they come from," he said.
"The last time I checked, there were no border guards stopping people or goods going between the two provinces," said McGowan. "We question the entire rationale (for TILMA). There already is free trade between the two provinces."
Danielle Smith, the director of provincial affairs in Alberta for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, says she didn't see anything in the agreement that Alberta standards are going to erode.
"I don't believe any government is going to allow that kind of erosion because public support isn't going to be behind them for it," she observed.
Smith noted the real agenda here is to protect the local labour market.
"When the unions are able to restrict the number of people who can come into this market then it creates shortages and it bids up wages," she said.
Someone who's a certified funeral director, for example, in B.C., should be able to move seamlessly into the same career here. "If there are barriers in the way that are preventing that, I think the government has an obligation and a duty to strip those down and I think that's what workers want," said Smith.
Saying the agreement is to ease trade and labour movement between the two provinces, she cited truckers hauling hay who had to stop at the B.C.-Alberta border to reload to meet some new rules in B.C. "Those are the kinds of silly things they're trying to sweep out of the way," said Smith.
The summary of the study, prepared by Steven Shrybman of the law firm Sack Goldblatt Mitchell in Ottawa, describes TILMA as "an instrument for de-regulation" with a corrosive influence on employment-related standards that will be weakened and undermined in both provinces. The study was also critical of the lack of public consultation and legislative debate in its creation. With the predicted impacts on many spheres of public policy and law, it concluded both provinces should reconsider their commitment to such a "draconian and unwarranted constraint on the exercise of public and democratically determined authority."
Fort McMurray Today, Page A3, Tues July 17 2007
Byline: Carol Christian
A union leader says the province has quietly lifted a stop work order imposed on an oilsands tank construction site in northern Alberta after two workers died.
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, says officials in the Immigration Department told him about the development Thursday.
In a letter to Immigration Minister Iris Evans, McGowan says he believed the stop-work order would remain in place until the end of an investigation into what happened at the site near Fort McMurray.
McGowan wants to know whether the review into the deaths and a second non-fatal collapse three weeks later has been completed.
He has also written a letter to Justice Minister Ron Stevens asking for a public fatality inquiry into the deaths.
The Chinese men were working on the multibillion-dollar Horizon oilsands project belonging to Canadian Natural Resources (TSX:CNQ).
The Edmonton Sun, Page 33, Sat July 14 2007
Help may soon be on the way for the province's growing energy sector in the form of a collaborative approach addressing labour shortages.
A Workforce Strategy for Alberta's Energy Sector, developed by 37 energy associations, labour organizations and employers developed, was announced Tuesday. It contains 46 new actions to inform, attract and develop the workforce.
But while government and industry is heralding this strategy, labour unions are disappointed with the "business as usual" plan.
Alberta obviously needs an answer to the overall high demand for skilled and unskilled workers, according to Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"Yet we see nothing new in this document, nothing innovative. It's really business as usual after you get through the PR and promises to study various issues," said McGowan in a statement.
Describing the strategy as lacking in substance, he added it includes "vague intentions and promises."
The strategy was kick-started by the Alberta departments of Energy and Employment, Immigration and Industry, the Alberta Chamber of Resources and the Construction Owners Association of Alberta.
Brian Maynard, vice president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said 400,000 new jobs will be created in the province between now and 2015 but it leaves the province still 100,000 workers short.
Between 150,000 and 200,000 of the jobs will be in the oil and gas industry, he said.
''This is the biggest issue we face,'' he said. ''We can't do this without people.''
A highlight of the strategy includes a one-stop website about entering and working in the energy sector and living in Alberta to attract out-of-province workers, he said.
The purpose of the program is to develop ways to attract skilled workers to the whole industry through, for example, education and immigration, said Cheryl Knight, executive director and CEO of the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada.
''It's more proactive and long-term,'' she said.
Energy Minister Mel Knight called the program ''a road map'' to ensure Alberta's energy sector continues to thrive and contribute to the province's economy.
''All of the pieces that have been brought together are certainly very valuable and can work in concert to get us to a goal,'' Knight said.
Fort McMurray Today, Page A1, Wed July 11 2007
Alberta faces a potentially crippling shortage of workers that could stall development of multi-billion-dollar oilsands projects and the economy at large, government and industry officials said Tuesday.
Government forecasts say Alberta needs 400,000 new workers by 2015. But that analysis also shows 100,000 of those jobs won't be filled unless new strategies are engaged to recruit and train people from every possible demographic.
Brian Maynard, a vice-president with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, says the energy industry alone faces a shortfall of 40,000 workers over the next eight years.
Failure to find the right number of workers could jeopardize billions in investment planned for the booming energy sector. Energy contributes about a third, more than $59 billion annually, to Alberta's gross domestic product.
Maynard said Alberta can't afford to ignore the brewing demographic storm. "There's just too much at stake," he said. "This is one of the biggest issues our industry faces."
Maynard was on hand for the unveiling of the Alberta government's workforce strategy for the oil and gas industry, a series of training and education initiatives designed to increase the labour pool by attracting more women, young people and aboriginals to the workforce.
Women in particular make up about three per cent of an oil and gas workforce that is typically Caucasian, older than 45 -- and male.
"The 100,000 (workers) come in pieces," said Energy Minister Mel Knight.
The energy industry has 150,00 direct employees and almost double that when indirect employment is counted.
By 2015 the oilpatch faces critical shortages of skilled trades ranging from process engineers to quality control supervisors. The province defines a critical shortage as any sector with less than three per cent unemployment.
The government's 10-year strategy was hashed out with the help of 37 energy associations, labour organizations and employers and aims to broaden the workforce with a suite of programs including training, education and attracting more people to move to Alberta from within Canada as well as overseas.
"The important thing to remember is that this is an industry led approach," said Lloyd Dick, speaking on behalf of the Alberta Chamber of Resources and Construction Owners Association of Alberta.
In addition, the program aims to recruit more young people. Youth unemployment is roughly double the province's official 3.8 per cent rate and energy is held with a certain amount of disdain among young people who see it as old-fashioned
"To attract the labour force of tomorrow we have to promote the petroleum industry as an employer of choice," said Cheryl Knight, executive director of the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada.
But Gil McGowan, who heads the Alberta Federation of Labour, said his group is "suspicious" of government efforts to bring more workers to Alberta at a time when dissatisfaction with working conditions is running high.
Last week, five construction unions held strike votes in Edmonton, Calgary and Fort McMurray for the first time in more than 30 years, voicing displeasure with working conditions on major oilsands projects.
If the votes are positive, construction work in northeast Alberta could come to a halt before the end of the month.
McGowan accused the government of trying to circumvent Alberta's labour movement by bringing in temporary foreign workers.
He said employers are partly to blame for failing to attract and train new workers during the downturn. Instead many potential new recruits were turned away and took up careers in more "stable" sectors of the economy.
"What we're saying is that there has to be a better way to develop the workforce of the future so we're better ready for when the boom comes," he said. "Throwing money at the problem is not enough."
According to Iris Evans, Alberta's minister of Employment, Immigration and Industry, her department received about 8,000 applications for foreign workers, a four-fold increase from 2,000 applications at this time last year.
But CAPP's Maynard countered that hiring foreigners is an expensive last resort. Most companies would prefer to hire Canadians first, he added.
Skilled oil workers are as scarce as steel and equipment around the globe. The oil industry would still be hard-pressed to attract all the workers it needs even if immigration levels were dramatically increased, he noted.
"We need them in every area . . . and it's going to fall to immigration to fill the gap," he said. "There's nobody that's going to be left aside. Usually governments have had to deal with unemployment, now they're having to deal with full employment and that's a complete reversal from what they're used to."
Calgary Herald, Page A1, Wed July 11 2007
Byline: Shaun Polczer
Alberta yesterday published a new "work force strategy" to attract more workers to the province's booming energy industry. The project, which involved industry, proposed 46 ideas to recruit, retain and develop the work force. Highlights include a mobile training facility, to be used in remote areas of the province, and development of a "one-stop" website with information about living in Alberta and working in the energy sector, in the hopes of drawing workers from other provinces. The Alberta Federation of Labour earlier yesterday said it is worried Alberta is relying too heavily on temporary foreign workers and is skeptical about the new strategy.
The Globe And Mail, Page B9, Wed July 11 2007
Byline: David Ebner
A worker shortfall in the energy industry could stall Alberta's motoring economy, although government and industry representatives outlined plans Tuesday to grapple with the problem.
Officials unveiled a 10-year workforce strategy for Alberta's energy sector, although there's no silver bullet solution to solving the problem, noted Cheryl Knight, executive director and chief executive officer of the Petroleum Human Resources Council.
"Change takes time and we're working on it," Knight said in an interview.
The Alberta government facilitated collaboration among 37 energy associations, organizations and employers to develop the strategy.
There are a number of areas where new workers could be sourced, Knight said. "Youth, immigration, temporary foreign workers, aboriginals, women. There really isn't one source."
The key, she said, is having industry promote the range of occupations.
"To attract the labour force of tomorrow we have to promote the oil and gas industry as an employer of choice."
At the end of July, the council is launching 'draw the world into your workplace' which is a 40-page workplace booklet to help companies reach out to the five under represented groups including youth, women, aboriginal peoples, immigrants and visible minorities.
Shying away from the human resource challenge is not an option as there is too much at stake, noted Brian Maynard, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
"It is increasingly difficult to find people with the right skills in sufficient numbers," he noted. "Forecasts suggest that by 2015, Alberta will be facing a worker shortfall of approximately 100,000 people."
Annual capital spending in the oil and gas industry tripled from $11.5 billion in 1998 to $36.6 billion in 2006. As of May 2007 there were $121.3 billion energy-related construction projects planned, underway or recently completed in the province.
As of April 2007, the oilsands (including upgraders) accounted for over $105 billion or 61% of all major construction projects planned, underway or recently completed in the province.
The total number of Albertans employed in the energy sector, as defined for the purposes of the strategy, was estimated at 146,000 in 2006. Approximately 132,000 individuals worked in oil and gas extraction and support activities. A further 10,000 were estimated to be employed in Alberta's electricity industry and 2,000 each in the coal and pipeline industries.
In 2006, the unemployment rate for mining, oil and gas extraction was three per cent, below the provincial average of 3.4%.
However, parts of the energy sector are experiencing demographic challenges. Economic downturns in the 1980s and early 1990s led to downsizing and the current demographic gaps in the workforce are due to the loss of experienced mid-career employees and difficulty in attracting new entrants, the strategy document notes.
As well, a number of occupations in the oil and gas and electricity industries are experiencing the challenges of an aging workforce. Forty per cent of the labour force in oil and gas supervisory, engineering, technology and operations-related positions are 45 years and older.
The energy sector also employs proportionally more men than women. Men represent almost 75% of the total workforce in mining, oil and gas extraction while they only account for 55% of all employed Albertans. However, the numbers of women in mining, oil and gas extraction are steadily increasing, up 9,600 between 2005 and 2006.
Some of the strategies are hoped to stem the problem before it becomes dire.
Key actions include developing information on career opportunities and occupations in the upstream petroleum industry and disseminate it to traditional and non-traditional pools of labour while continuing to promote careers in the trades (develop brochures, attend career fairs).
Others called for the exploration of alternative approaches to altering public perception of the oil and gas industry, partnering with government and individual communities to provide improved support programs and networks for integrating new immigrants, partnering with the Canadian Council of Directors of Apprenticeship to develop a strategy to improve the Foreign Credential Recognition (FCR) process, including the development of an FCR assessment tool for foreign trained construction trade workers and work to improve labour mobility within Canada, particularly for occupations in the trades (recognition of credentials, free movement of apprentices).
The Alberta Federation of Labour, however, was "disappointed" by the workforce strategy.
"Instead of substance all we have is vague intentions and promises," Gil McGowan, president, said in a statement. "We also note with disappointment that the union most involved in the energy sector, the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) was not consulted.
"We had hoped to see proposals for changing the way we engage in workforce training in both our post-secondary and apprenticeship training systems. We also expected some specific goals and targets for dealing with the social and economic dislocation that drives workers away from isolated worksites and boomtowns like Fort McMurray."
Meanwhile, Petro-Canada's Andrew Stephens noted that with the company's stake in the oilsands, rolling out a strategy is key to address the labour needs going forward.
"The projected workforce for Petro-Canada on our Fort Hills project alone is expected to peak in the third quarter of 2009 at 8,000 construction workers and when operating will need 1,600 operations personnel and then on top of that we'll need the people to maintain the facility," he said.
Employment Minister Iris Evans said that if the strategies aren't followed, it could lead to a slowdown of economic growth.
"We've got a full and complete way to look at things," she said. "Expose young people to trades. Talk to kids in school."
Energy Minister Mel Knight added the solution will not come together at once.
"You put together a roadmap to bring those pieces together so that at the end of the day we can clearly see," he said.
Daily Oil Bulletin, Page 1, Wed July 11 2007
Byline: By Richard Macedo
With labourers pouring into Alberta from around the world in increasing numbers, Ottawa says it's exploring strict new penalties to crack down on businesses or other organizations that abuse temporary foreign workers.
Federal Human Resources Minister Monte Solberg said Monday he's concerned by reports of abuse taking place against foreign labourers, adding he doesn't want to see Canada's reputation harmed.
"We have an obligation to protect workers and, frankly, our good reputation as a country that treats people well," Solberg told a news conference in Calgary. Solberg said Ottawa is looking at putting new measures in place to address any abuses, including the possibility of penalties or refusing future requests for foreign workers.
He made the comments as Ottawa inked a memorandum of understanding with Alberta that will see the two governments work together to identify any organization "pushing the envelope" in their treatment of foreign workers.
Iris Evans, Alberta's minister of employment, immigration and industry, called the agreement "monumental."
"Although the number of complaints is low, this agreement will also help us better monitor the working conditions of foreign workers," she said.
With the number of temporary foreign workers in the province skyrocketing due to the labour crunch, there is growing concern that such labourers are being mistreated.
There are stories of workers being charged thousands of dollars in recruiting fees for coming to Canada.
Solberg said he's putting employers, labour brokers and unions on notice.
"We're today starting to take names, and anybody who we suspect is in a position where they're not treating people well will be held to account."
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said there were little details or substance in Monday's announcement.
"This is not an announcement about real policy change," he said. "What does it mean? That they're going to continue to study the program?"
McGowan said more concrete actions should have already been in place.
Dan Kelly of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said it's important that governments take a closer look at the temporary foreign worker program as it becomes a larger part of the mainstream workforce.
But he's worried the government will get tough on enforcing laws without having a debate about how a new set of rules will look.
The number of temporary foreign workers travelling to Alberta in 2006 increased 46 per cent over 2005 figures -- hitting an annual flow of 15,172.
Although Alberta has only 10 per cent of Canada's total population, it attracted 13.5 per cent of all foreign labourers who came to the country last year.
Calgary Herald, Page A5, Tues July 10 2007
Byline: Tony Seskus and Kelly Cryderman
Ottawa is eyeing new fines and penalties to protect temporary foreign workers whose rights are being trampled by "unscrupulous" employers and labour brokers, federal Human Resources Development Minister Monte Solberg said on Monday.
Labour leader Gil McGowan calls such workers a "growing underclass" in Alberta -- short-term recruits who may be mistreated by their bosses or are charged hefty and illegal brokerage fees to work here.
The workers are often uncomfortable reporting the abuses, fearful their employers will ship them home, he said.
Solberg admitted he's uneasy that the provincial government is mainly responsible for protecting foreign labourers, since immigration is traditionally federal jurisdiction.
The federal minister warned the problem could hurt Canada's image abroad.
"We have an obligation to protect workers and, frankly, our good reputation as a country that treats people well," Solberg told reporters in Calgary.
"I would say we're today starting to take names, and anybody who we suspect is in a position where they're not treating people well will be held to account."
Solberg would not say what sort of penalties Ottawa would impose on companies guilty of abuses or fraud, but suggested it could refuse any future requests for foreign workers.
Alberta's energy boom has triggered skyrocketing demand for foreign temporary recruits everywhere from the oilfields to restaurant kitchens. In May, Alberta employers requested 8,186 workers -- more than quadruple the requests in May 2006, federal figures show.
The province's Employment, Immigration and Industry department is hiring 39 new staff to help monitor and enforce its labour standards and the Fair Trading Act, currently the main ways to police the foreign workers' program.
Ottawa also wants to boost its capacity to cope with the size of the temporary program, which Solberg said his government wasn't prepared for. "There are unscrupulous people who see that as an opportunity to take advantage of these workers," he said.
Iris Evans, Alberta's employment and immigration minister, said foreign labourers often aren't aware of their rights, sometimes because of language barriers.
"Although the number of complaints is low, this agreement will also help us better monitor the working conditions of foreign workers," she said.
The Alberta and federal governments inked an agreement Monday to share more information on their handling of temporary foreign workers -- an area they fear sometimes falls into the cracks between the two jurisdictions.
McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said talk of penalties seems a small but good step, but both governments must do much more to monitor and root out problems.
The AFL set up a one-man advocacy office to field temporary labourers' complaints in late April and McGowan said he's been swamped with nearly 100 cases. He said the Edmonton office sees just a fraction of the problems Alberta-wide.
Solberg brushed off long-running complaints that the program takes jobs away from Canadians or is a bad alternative to traditional immigration, arguing temporary recruits are the best short-term solution to the current inflated demand.
"The temporary foreign worker program is vital to ensuring that the Canadian economy in general and certainly the Alberta economy can continue to prosper."
Edmonton Journal, Page B5, Tues July 10 2007
Byline: Jason Markusoff